There are many reasons why so many US public schools remained persistently closed for well over a year, but at the top of the list is Randi Weingarten. She is the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and served as the self-appointed and media-anointed spokesperson for teachers’ unions throughout the pandemic.
Weingarten appeared regularly across national media outlets for well over two years, relentlessly touting the dangers of public schools and the risk to teachers from in-person instruction. She also painted anyone who advocated for schools to open as heartless and cruel. Now that it’s become clear what a disaster closed schools were, Weingarten is attempting to rewrite history. She is pretending that she had nothing to do with the school closures at all, and she seems to expect us all to accept this blatant lie.
The catastrophic harms done are clear – two decades of educational progress erased, high rates of chronic absenteeism, violence in the schools, severe teen mental health impacts, and declining public school enrollment. So, now Weingarten wants to distance herself from having had any part of it. More egregiously, she is trying to position herself as the hero fighting for public school openings the entire time.
Weingarten has expressed no remorse. She has offered no apology, only more lies. And it’s a real slap in the face for those who did fight and put everything on the line to do so.
I know what really happened. Since March 2020, I have challenged school closures as harmful to a generation of children. Because I fought for schools to open, I lost my job as the Brand President at Levi’s in January 2022, after close to 23 years of service to the company.
In June 2021, more than a year into my advocacy, I was told I needed to do an “apology tour” at the company. Apologize for what, you might ask? Well, in a pre-meeting prep email, I was given a lengthy list and one of the things I was told that I needed to apologize for was being “anti-union.”
Because, if you dared to challenge prolonged school closures throughout covid, you were smeared as being both anti-union and anti-public education.
In fact, I’ve been a lifelong supporter of public schools. My two oldest children graduated from the San Francisco Unified School District, and my two younger children are currently enrolled in the Denver public school system. I appreciate and respect public school teachers. But the teachers’ unions have proven over the last few years that they will fight for their own interests at the expense of our children. And now, after the last three years, I am indeed officially anti-teachers’ union.
My executive peers at Levi’s who claimed to support the unions and public schools send their own kids to $60K a year private schools. These institutions opened for in-person instruction in the Fall of 2020. One of the reasons these schools were able to open was that they employ non-union educators and staff.
Despite the evident hypocrisy, my peers had no qualms about telling me I couldn’t advocate for public school openings. Weingarten had effectively painted people like me as villains, and the world piled on.
Not only was I called anti-union by employees at Levi’s, but I was also called “racist.” The company leadership has since claimed that my activism amounted to unacceptable criticism of public health guidelines and undermined the company’s health and safety policies.
I’m still unclear how low-income kids going to school would put the health and safety of employees working on Zoom at risk. But Weingarten instigated and fueled this false narrative.
You can imagine my dismay to hear Weingarten’s Congressional testimony two weeks ago where she said that “spent every day from February on trying to get schools open. We knew that remote education was not a substitute for opening schools.” If she was for openings, why was I maligned as anti-union for wanting schools to open? If she was for it, weren’t we on the same side?
No, we weren’t on the same side. In fact, in June of 2020, Weingarten called plans to open schools “reckless, callous and cruel.”
In the summer of 2020, Weingarten constantly issued statements such as: “We are deeply concerned that rushing to reopen school buildings without proper safeguards in place will endanger students, educators and their families.”
In reality, Weingarten did everything in her power to keep schools shuttered; she just pretended that she wanted them open. She had a direct line to Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, and interjected impossible-to-meet guidelines about what was necessary to re-open schools “safely.”
Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act in May 2021 revealed that the AFT lobbied the CDC and suggested language for the agency’s federal reopening guidance. Language “suggestions” put forward by the AFT were adopted in at least two instances.
In February 2021, the CDC was prepared to write in their guidance that schools could open for in-person instruction regardless of community spread of the virus. The AFT insisted that that was unacceptable and argued for guidelines based on levels of community transmission. The AFT’s suggested language appeared word-for-word in the final direction.
Furthermore, the AFT demanded remote work accommodations for teachers with high-risk conditions as well as staff with household members with similar conditions. This provision also made it into the final document.
Schools that adhered to this CDC guidance were not able to open. In fact, one year after schools closed in March 2020, approximately 50 percent of public schools were not yet fully opened in the United States. Nearly 25 million students experienced disrupted schooling for a full year and a half. Most of them lived in blue cities and states.
Upon release of the guidance, the AFT issued praise in a press release on February 12, 2021: “Today, the CDC met fear of the pandemic with facts and evidence.”
In fact, the CDC and the AFT did the exact opposite. They chose to further fear with lies about schools being dangerous disease accelerators, and about children being super-spreaders.
Weingarten and the CDC ignored all actual evidence that open schools did not increase risk and spread in communities, regardless of community spread levels. Evidence in red states, in Sweden, in Denmark and all across Europe abounded, as early as spring and summer 2020. Often schools served as brakes on transmission, and were the safest places for teachers and kids to be.
Yet Weingarten persisted in vilifying children. So, while bars and strip clubs opened, schools remained closed.
The fact is, no one fought harder to keep kids out of the classroom than teachers’ unions. Florida teachers’ unions sued Governor Ron DeSantis so they wouldn’t have to go back to work in fall 2020. They failed in their attempt and Florida schools re-opened.
The unions became so intransigent that even Democratic mayors went to war with them. San Francisco Mayor London Breed went so far as to sue the San Francisco school district to reopen schools. Breed was unsuccessful and San Francisco schools didn’t open until September 2021.
Recently, outgoing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot criticized Weingarten for delaying school reopenings. On CNN This Morning, Lightfoot said: “Obviously, every union should advocate for its members, but it’s gotta be in the context of an organization . . .the union needed to work with us and they never did that.”
Lightfoot went on to say: “Schools are about our children.”
But Weingarten didn’t care. She made it all about her. And she’s doing it again now in her attempt to rewrite history. She wants to be remembered as a hero in the open schools debate, not the villain responsible for generational harm.
But we remember the truth. We will not allow history to be rewritten.
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